Divining the Flu Virus of the Future at UTMB

How UTMB researchers can predict whether the 2019 flu vaccine will (or won't) work.

By Anna Lassmann August 15, 2018

Every year when the flu vaccine comes out it seems like the powers-that-be in charge of its selection are rolling the dice and hoping for the best. The effectiveness of the winning combination every year varies from about 10 to 60 percent.

Unfortunately, it looks like this year’s flu season, which runs from October to May, may be a rough one, according to Dr. Slobodan Paessler, a pathology researcher at UTMB Galveston. Slobodan runs an analysis every year to figure out how effective each iteration of the flu vaccine will be, and this year he’s predicting the vaccines may not be doing much to keep people from picking up the main strains of flu that will likely be running around.

But this is no reason to skip the flu shot entirely, Paessler warns.

The flu vaccine didn’t come around until the mid-20th century. Before the vaccine, influenza epidemics would sweep through killing countless numbers of people. One of the worst years in recorded history came in 1918 with the Spanish influenza pandemic, killing at least 50 million. Would this vaccine have saved millions of people in 1918? Possibly. It’s hard to compare since new strains of the virus develop through genetic mutations, shifting the symptoms and traits of the disease to the point that it is hard, if not impossible, for scientists to predict what the next iteration of flu will be like. Still, there was a difference when another outbreak occurred with the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. In that case, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that the vaccine saved roughly 300 lives and prevented more than one million illnesses.

However, even with availability of modern-day vaccines, influenza kills more than 30,000 people every year, partly because the vaccines that are cooked up before each flu season are not 100 percent effective due to the multiple types of influenza and the possibility for mutation. This last season, the CDC estimated that the flu vaccine was only 36 percent effective. There were 177 pediatric deaths nationwide, with 16 in Texas and two Houston. (While data on the total number of influenza-associated deaths in Texas and the United States are not completely accurate because they don’t have to be reported, influenza-associated pediatric deaths are available because the CDC requires states to report deaths for people under 18.)

But if you thought this year’s flu season was bad, just wait. Paessler and his research team have released their first prediction on the effectiveness of next year’s flu vaccine in F1000 Research, an open access scientific publishing platform. And they are predicting the vaccine will be even less effective next year.

Each year World Health Organization officials choose a strain of flu to focus on. For next year, the WHO doctors opted to go with a vaccine better suited to inoculate people against H3N2 viruses, a strain of influenza, that were then circulating in places in the Southern Hemisphere, such as Australia. To do this, the WHO looks to Australia and their virus strains, because their flu season—which begins in May and peaks in August—follows that of the Northern Hemisphere. However, Paessler says the Australian iteration of the H3N2 virus has significant genetic differences from the H3N2 virus in the United States, which is part of why the vaccines are sometimes less effective.

Still, if scientists cannot make flu vaccines more consistently reliable on an annual basis, Paessler believes the fallout could even extend beyond people opting to not get their flu shots. “The public doesn’t distinguish between flu, measles, or bacterial infections, for them vaccines are vaccines,” Paessler adds. “I think every time you have these terrible years, you hurt your public health situation in general, because people stop vaccinating against other diseases as well.”

Paessler began making predictions in 2014 and he has been right the past three flu seasons. Each year, the UTMB researchers use the electronic biology platform and computational analysis, which compares the mutations and composition of the virus, to make their predictions.

Each time Paessler and his team make these predictions, they feel like they’ve gleamed a little more understanding about the flu virus itself. They’re hoping that these predictions, paired with their research, will ultimately allow them to start making stronger vaccines.

“That’s one of the main drivers for me and my group for getting a grip on this flu vaccine every year, so that we reset the trust of the public,” he says. 

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